Business Insights

Topical Perspectives in Business and Management

It’s Not the High Demand, It’s Your Response to It

Despite the recent headlines, the unreasonably high demand placed on today’s managers is not isolated to a few notorious companies. It is not a new phenomenon, nor unfortunately, does it show any signs of easing. Here is the evidence in a few troubling statistics:

  • 80% of managers say that the demands they face are increasing;
  • 66% say “workload” is the top cause of their stress, outranking “people issues” and “job security;”
  • Nearly half of managers say they struggle with a lack of focus and clear direction;
  • 61% of managers say they are working below their optimal level of energy; and
  • 51% say increased workload has a direct, negative effect on their well-being.

For generations, credible voices have described these dangers, which we’ve literally baked into the role of managers. From epidemics of managerial burnout, to the current tidal wave of disengagement that affects leaders and their teams in profound ways, the signs are unavoidable.

But if these warnings and stark numbers aren’t compelling enough, consider a finding from the Corporate Executive Board’s 2013 study that revealed: The average manager has 12 direct reports, compared with 7 before the recession. 

At face value, this leap represents a 40 percent increase in the average manager’s workload. Between the lines, this means a significant draw on the dwindling time and resources associated with everything managers do, from setting expectations, to establishing priorities, monitoring accountabilities, supporting ongoing productivity, and managing the countless small moves required to sustain the overall effectiveness of their teams.

Said another way, it is 40 percent more goal-setting discussions, weekly check-ins, difficult conversations, annual reviews, and so on. At an individual level, the brutal question is this: Where will your additional 40 percent of time, energy, resources, and focus come from to meet the demands on your plate?

The moment that demand begins to outpace capacity, a series of impossible trade-offs become the norm as manager’s get caught in firefighting mode: Which goal rises above all your other priorities? Which “fire of the day” gets extinguished while others are selectively ignored simply because there are too few resources available to put them all out? And, which project receives funding while other high-potential opportunities languish? 

These are just a few examples of the critical assessments, judgment calls, and decisions that frame the ultimate concern for managers. Within each of these difficult questions, you see the endless set of tradeoffs managers must make when they get stuck in the manager’s dilemma.

In this zero sum game, each managerial move generates a give or take with vital consequences for the team and organization. More importantly, it leaves managers caught in an exhausting cycle where there is always unfinished business.

To know if you’re caught in its grip, listen to the way you talk about your own work. The emergence of paradoxical statements like the following is the first sign that the manager’s dilemma is settling into your atmosphere:

  • “I can’t afford to relax because things are too busy right now.”
  • “I’m drained, but I have to set an example of perseverance for the team.”
  • “With so many deadlines and demands, some priorities will have to be sacrificed.”
  • “It’s too crazy now; I’ll focus better once things settle down.”

From the outside looking in you can see how backward statements like these actually are. If a friend said something like this to you, it would be easy to point out the flaw in their logic and show them how the undoubtedly counterproductive behaviors stemming from these attitudes will leave them more deeply entrenched in the dilemma.

However, when it comes to your own situations, you’re likely too close and too embroiled in the mix to maintain this level of objectivity. When you get stuck in the dilemma you lose perspective and start believing that this is how work has to be. Over time, the effects from this way of thinking and working leave you feeling like there is truly no way out. What was easy is now difficult. What was enjoyable is now unsatisfying. What was just an inconvenient headache is now a crisis. What used to give us a sense of purpose now seems unimportant. 

These four outcomes reflect the most damaging impacts of the manager’s dilemma: It saps your motivation, it reduces your capacity to contribute and perform at your best, and it produces a constant state of low-grade crisis that rapidly drains your available energy and focus leaving your further exhausted.

Like many other aspects of today’s free-agent economy, it may not be your fault that this inverse equation of shrinking resources and increasing demands persists, but it is your responsibility to create a better situation. The key to any change is to honestly confront the self-defeating routines that keep you stuck. To start overcoming your dilemma, take this complimentary assessment to see the nature of your dilemma up-close.

Jesse Sostrin, author of The Manager’s Dilemma, writes and speaks at the intersection of individual and organizational success. Follow him @jessesostrin

The Manager's Dilemma